Geoffrey Howe

(b. 1926)

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(b. Glamorgan, 20 Dec. 1926)

British; Chancellor of the Exchequer 1979–83, Foreign Secretary 1983–9; Kt. 1970, Baron (life peer) 1992 Howe was born in Port Talbot in south Wales. His father was a solicitor who could afford to send his son to Winchester. Howe then went to Cambridge to read law. He was an early member of the Bow Group, which consisted of members of university Conservative associations, and was chairman in 1955. He was a successful barrister before entering politics.

Howe entered the House of Commons in 1964 as Conservative MP for Bebington, which he held until his defeat in 1966. He then re-entered in 1970 as MP for Reigate and then Surrey East after the reorganization of constituencies in 1974, and held it until his retirement in 1992. Howe was made Solicitor-General (with a knighthood) in Edward Heath's 1970 government. In this post he played a key part in framing the legislation for the controversial Industrial Relations Act—which embittered relations with the trade unions—as well as the European Communities Act. The latter was a formidable operation because it involved the merger of much British law with the Treaty of Rome. In 1972 he was made Secretary of State for Trade and Consumer Affairs, with a seat in the Cabinet, and was responsible for overseeing the statutory controls on prices and incomes.

When Heath was defeated in the first round of the party's leadership contest in 1975, Howe entered the second ballot. He finished a distant third behind the eventual winner, Margaret Thatcher. But he had made a mark and she appointed him shadow Chancellor. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the first Thatcher government (1979–83) he ended exchange controls, cut income tax, and doubled VAT in his first budget. Howe took monetarist ideas seriously and his 1981 budget shocked Cabinet colleagues and Keynesian economists by deflating the economy at a time of severe recession. Sir Geoffrey signalled a decisive break with the incomes policies and corporatism of the 1970s.

Between 1983 and 1989 Howe was Foreign Secretary, the longest tenure of any Foreign Secretary since Grey (1905–16). He had to cope with Mrs Thatcher's suspicions of the Foreign Office—she regarded it as too compliant to foreigners, particularly to the European Community (EC). Compared to her, Sir Geoffrey was more pro-EC and less Atlanticist, favoured British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) of the European Monetary System, and was more willing to encourage British contacts with the African National Congress. The agreement to transfer Hong Kong to China in 1997 was largely his policy.

As a minister he joined a capacity for hard work to patience and an interest in working for long-term solutions. He was an effective debater but not an inspiring public speaker. His mumbling monotone style earned him the title ‘Mogadon Man’. Europe was to be the cause of his (and Mrs Thatcher's) downfall. Like her he had no time for the bolder schemes of federalism but he did believe in pooling national sovereignty where it would produce more benefits than action by a single government. On the eve of an important summit of European leaders in June 1989, Nigel Lawson (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Sir Geoffrey jointly threatened resignation unless Mrs Thatcher moderated her opposition to Britain's entry to the ERM. She compromised but determined to move Sir Geoffrey at her earliest opportunity.


Subjects: Politics.

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